Robotic teams vie to land privately built rovers on the moon

23 Jul 2012

Picture of the full moon surrounded by a rich field of background stars, which was taken on 6 September 2001. Composite image credit: T.A. Rector, I.P. Dell'Antonio, NOAO, AURA, NSF

This past Friday marked the 43rd anniversary of Neil Armstrong becoming the first human being to set foot on the moon. And now 26 privately funded teams from around the globe are on a mission to build and then land robotic rovers on the moon by 2015, as they compete for a tranche of the US$30m Google Lunar X Prize.

Not since the 1972 Apollo 17 space mission has anyone landed on the moon. That could all be about to change, however, if one or more of the 26 teams that has entered the Google Lunar X competition manages to land their privately built rovers on the moon by 31 December 2015.

This year we’ve already witnessed a privately held company successfully launching and berthing an unmanned capsule on the International Space Station (ISS). NASA commissioned SpaceX, a company set up by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, who also heads up Tesla Motors, to carry out the unmanned mission to the ISS. The capsule itself carried supplies to the crew aboard the space station when it berthed on 25 May.

Moon 2.0

So what’s the Google Lunar X Prize all about then?

Back in 2007 Google launched its competition, putting up a total of US$30m in prizes for the first privately funded teams to safely land a robot on the surface of the moon. Team registration for the competition closed on 31 December 2010 after at least 26 teams from around the globe entered it.

Any of these teams that manages to land a robot on the moon between now and the end of 2015 will also have to make their robot travel 500 metres over the lunar surface and send video, images and data back to earth.

To qualify, Google stipulated that teams had to be at least 90pc privately funded. The search giant has been calling the competition ‘Moon 2.0’.

Into the cosmos …

So here’s a glimpse of some of the 26 teams that have set their sights on claiming the moon prize.

The Euroluna team is a group of friends and relatives, ranging in age from 16 to 60, with engineering backgrounds. They are currently working on a robotic craft called Romit. The team is headquartered in Denmark, plus its members also hail from Switzerland and Italy.

Team Stellar, meanwhile, is from the US. The team’s leader is Keith Goeller, who is currently the president and CEO of KGO Aerospace.

And Barcelona Moon Team comes from Spain. It is being led by aeronautical engineer and architect Xavier Claramunt. He is the founder and president of Galactic Suite.

The Lunar Lion team is a collusion of students and faculty members from Penn State University as well as engineers from Penn State’s Applied Research Laboratory. They are pioneering the Lunar Lion craft, which will serve as the team’s spacecraft, lander and rover.

Watch this space to see if any of the 26 teams can cross a new lunar frontier by the end of 2015!

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic